For day 3 of our Black History Month celebration we recognize: Katherine Johnson!
Katherine Johnson is an African American mathematician whose calculations and trajectories played a pivotal role in the success of the first manned spaceflights. Her story rose to prominence in 2016 with the premiere of Hidden Figures where Johnson was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson.
Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on August 26, 1918, Johnson was always fascinated by numbers.
“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”Katherine Johnson
Johnson’s brilliance shined in her educational pursuits. Johnson graduated from high school at the age of 14, and graduated from West Virginia State College in 1937 at the age of 18 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Mathematics and French.
In 1953, Johnson began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley in Hampton, Virginia. At Langley, Johnson was assigned by Dorothy Vaughn, who was an African American mathematician and human computer, to work on a project for the Flight Research Division. Though the initial assignment was temporary, the position ultimately became permanent. In 1960, Johnson became the first woman to receive credit as an author for a research report in the Flight Research Division.
Johnson’s computations and trajectory calculations were crucial in setting the launch windows and emergency returns for the Mercury spaceflights, which included the flights of the first American in Space, Alan Shepard, and the first American in orbit, John Glenn.
“As a part of the preflight checklist, Glenn asked engineers to “get the girl”—Katherine Johnson—to run the same numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. “If she says they’re good,’” Katherine Johnson remembers the astronaut saying, “then I’m ready to go.”NASA
Not only were Johnson’s calculations essential in the Mercury spaceflights, but her calculations were key in the development of the Space Shuttle program as well as the Earth Resources Satellite.
In 2015, Johnson was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
In the following year, Johnson’s brilliance and contributions were highlighted and made known in the widely celebrated film, Hidden Figures.